Computers, Information Technology, the Internet, Ethics, Society and Human Values

Philip Pecorino, Ph.D.

Queensborough Community College,  CUNY

Chapter 6    Privacy

Presentation of  Issues

Forms of Privacy

There are different types of privacy.  There is privacy for individuals and for groups.  For individual privacy or personal privacy there are at least three types of privacy: physical, social and psychological.  Physical privacy relates to our bodies and not just to our "private parts".  It is of great value in relation to self image and self esteem and to the basic sense of self.  As we age few of us are prepared to have others see us as we first arise from our beds in the morning.  We need to prepare to go out into the public sphere and for that we put on our public face and at times our 'game face".  Social privacy relates to the ways in which we interact with others and that involves the various forms of being with others.  We have reasons why we do not want others to observe our communications with certain others be they in written form or facial expressions or oral expression or electronic data transfers.   The observations of others intrudes upon and alters the nature of the private relationship with the particular other and can even on occasion destroy not only the intended communication or transmission of feeling but even the relationship.  Psychological privacy involves the very thoughts and feelings of the human.  Such privacy is needed for the development and preservation of the individual self.  Some particularly cruel forms of torture aim at destroying resistance by destroying the individual sense of self through violations of all forms of privacy but in particular the psychological realm.

Need for Privacy

Many people think that certain forms of privacy are needed in order to form certain personal relationships.  Other forms of privacy are needed in order for people to associate with others and to organize for common purposes.  In a democratic society certain forms of privacy are needed to permit forms of association for political discourse, debate and action. Imagine how differently people would act with others if they believed that everything about then and all that they do can be made available to anyone and everyone.  Imagine the impact on the ability of individuals to have and further personal relationships with family and friends.  The ability to share intimacy with another might be so seriously compromised in a society with no assurances of privacy as to make such relationships altogether different from what they have been.  We humans may have a need to see ourselves as we define ourselves and not only as others see us.

Right to Privacy

As far as legal protection for privacy of any type that is a complex affair.  In her book Legislating Privacy, Technology, Social Values and Public Policy (Chapel Hill, NC:University of North Carolina press, 1995) Priscilla M. Reagan indicates that there is recognized a privacy for information and another for communications (transmission of information) and still another considered as psychological privacy.   Under the law when there is an overarching social interest the individual's right to privacy will be violated or surrendered in cases involving such matters as law enforcement, public protection, national security or even in order to support various forms of governmental efficiency.

"The Right to Privacy" (1890)  Samuel Warren and Louis Brandeis

Privacy Act of 1974, 5 U.S.C. § 552a

Threats to Privacy

Private Life in Cyberspace by John Perry Barlow 

Again, the amount of information being recorded in digital form and being made available to information networks and systems is already beyond imagining and growing larger each year.  The kinds of information being recorded has also expanded as have the ways in which the information is being combined and cross referenced by private, commercial and governmental agencies. Combine this with the many ways and the many levels of information exchange and that accumulation is in itself perceived as a threat to if not already a violation of or denial of the right to privacy individuals want to believe that they have.

Add to the already disturbing picture of information accumulation and use the fact that some of the information gathered and linked to individuals may be erroneous.  Having no knowledge of its existence individuals can take no action to correct it.   Credit information is now available and can be challenged and corrected.  But what of the rest of it?  Further, as if all of this is not bad enough, there is the rather certain occurrence that incorrect data corrected in one location may have already been shared or sold or taken by others and would not be corrected in all locations where it exists.

On of the most insidious threats to privacy comes from citizens and residents wishing to exercise their other rights and to take advantage of benefits provided by government.  To do so requires the filing of forms and the provision of information about the individual which then resides within the database of governmental agencies. The threat to privacy places a burden on the exercise of individual autonomy when choosing an option will compromise one's privacy.

Morality of Privacy

In her book Legislating Privacy, Technology, Social Values and Public Policy (Chapel Hill, NC:University of North Carolina press, 1995) Priscilla M. Reagan argues for making privacy such a value that it is not to be set against social goods advocated by government and commercial enterprises so as to be subject to compromise or violation in an effort to balance the two sets of goods.   She argues that Privacy ought to  be set as a social good itself as necessary for the proper functioning of a democratic society.  Privacy needs protection for the sake of all and not just for the sake of  individuals.  Setting privacy as a social good as well as an individual good would give it a ranking equal to that of preserving law and order( law enforcement) or certainly the equal of the proper functioning of government and the furtherance of commercial enterprise.  So setting it at the same level as a social good and not simply an individual good might, when privacy is being threatened or challenged, reduce the tendency to view privacy as something which needs to be limited or compromised for sake of the "greater good": the social good.

Deborah Johnson argues that humans may have a need to see ourselves as we define ourselves and not only as others see us.  If we have no privacy and all that is knowable about is is known to others then we begin to think more of how others are viewing us and our sense of self may become our sense of our appearance to others rather than our inner sense of who we are and want to be. Thus privacy is a value as a fundamental human need that is related to our sense of our selves which in turn is intimately connected to our autonomy as moral agents.

Beyond this argument for a right to and expectation of privacy Deborah Johnson argues that we regard privacy as an essential aspect of autonomy.

Individuals control what relationships they have and the nature of those relationships by controlling the flow of information to others; when individuals have no control over information that others have about them , there is a significant reduction in their autonomy.  (Computer Ethics, 2001, p124.)

If people do not have control over information about them it can produce an impact on the ability of individuals to exercise their autonomy as it impacts upon the ability of individuals to to establish and influence relationships with others. So, accepting that autonomy is intrinsically valuable and privacy is a necessary condition for autonomy there would be a support for the claim that privacy is a necessary condition for an intrinsic good but individual good to be set against competing claims of the need for access to information that might be deemed a violation of privacy.

James Moor in his work Towards a Theory of Privacy in the Information Age disagrees with Johnson concerning privacy and its relation to autonomy and instead argues for privacy as valued but not as a core value.  The core value to be respected and protected is that of security. Privacy is one expression of that core value.  Without security individuals and societies can not long continue or flourish and so for that sake privacy as security is to be valued.  Moor argues not for absolute rights to privacy but for "zones of privacy".  With such a concept Moor believes that policies and practices will develop that will permit by consent or legislation access and permit a degree of individual control over those zones so assigned to individuals.

READ: Towards a Theory of Privacy in the Information Age

For a consideration of legal and ethical issues related ot privacy in the workplace:

READ: Technology and Ethics: Privacy in the Workplace A speech by Laura P. Hartman

Summary Based on Computer Ethics By Deborah Johnson Chapter 5 Privacy
                                             (Kimberly Beuther CUNY,2006)
           In Deborah Johnson’s book, Computer Ethics, she addresses those who argue against her idea that privacy “is shown to be a social good, in its own right and more important than other social goods such as efficiency and better consumer services”. (Johnson;127) Many people are under the impression that privacy issues only affect those people who have something to hide. Johnson counters this belief saying that there are many circumstances in which information about a person can be incorrect. In her view, even if a person can initially resolve issues where the wrong information is stored, they may never be able to completely remove the information from every database that contains it. Therefore, erroneous information can exist about a person for an infinite amount of time, in some cases leading to adverse actions on the part of possible employers, law enforcement agencies, and credit agencies. Johnson also points out that there are institutions, and companies who may gain access to personal information, and though it is illegal, use it against others based on race, religion or ethnicity. Finally, Johnson points out that when people are afraid that their private information could be obtained, they may feel pressure to conform. When so many people are forced to conform, Johnson believes that this will inhibit their ability to enact changed in their society. Apparently, privacy issues affect more than just those involved in wrong doing.
             The second argument that Deborah Johnson takes on is that people have a right to refuse to give their information, and those that do give their personal information have in effect decided to give up their privacy. However, Johnson points out that in our current society, it is nearly impossible to exist without giving out personal information. If people were to decide to refuse to give such information, then they would not be able to use a computer, carry a credit card, have a mortgage on their home, or even have health insurance. Johnson also points out that the price anyone would have to pay to keep their information private would be too great, they would not be able to have a driver’s license, receive social security benefits, or any other government program benefits, because some part of their private information would be stored in a database. Though there are many things that people could refuse to engage in to protect their privacy, they would be losing their right to freedom, and that would be too high a price to pay.    
Johnson, Deborah G. 2001. “Privacy” pp 109-136 in Computer Ethics Third Edition. Upper Saddle River NJ; Prentice Hall

Johnson (Computer Ethics, 2001, p132-133.) has proposed several measures to improve upon the current situation with regard to the computer technologies and privacy

  1. Set privacy as a social good and not simply an individual good

  2. Enact comprehensive legislation regulating all government agencies at all levels and commercial and private agencies in their information gathering and processing and distributing and granting of access.

  3. Reconsider the need to regulate private and commercial organizations

  4. Personal information had ought to be treated as part of the very infrastructure of society and protected rather than being treated as a commodity

ACM Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct (1992) has the following:

1.7 Respect the privacy of others.

Computing and communication technology enables the collection and exchange of personal information on a scale unprecedented in the history of civilization. Thus there is increased potential for violating the privacy of individuals and groups. It is the responsibility of professionals to maintain the privacy and integrity of data describing individuals. This includes taking precautions to ensure the accuracy of data, as well as protecting it from unauthorized access or accidental disclosure to inappropriate individuals. Furthermore, procedures must be established to allow individuals to review their records and correct inaccuracies.

This imperative implies that only the necessary amount of personal information be collected in a system, that retention and disposal periods for that information be clearly defined and enforced, and that personal information gathered for a specific purpose not be used for other purposes without consent of the individual(s). These principles apply to electronic communications, including electronic mail, and prohibit procedures that capture or monitor electronic user data, including messages, without the permission of users or bona fide authorization related to system operation and maintenance. User data observed during the normal duties of system operation and maintenance must be treated with strictest confidentiality, except in cases where it is evidence for the violation of law, organizational regulations, or this Code. In these cases, the nature or contents of that information must be disclosed only to proper authorities.

Johnson urges that the previous items in the ACM Code in 1972 continue to serve as guidelines:

  • to minimize the data collected

  • to limit authorized access to the data

  • to provide proper security for the data

  • to determine the required retention period of the data

  • to ensure the proper disposal of the data

Protecting Privacy

As there are so many threats to privacy any approach to protecting privacy willneed to be varied.  Several components are offered by Johnson (Computer Ethics, 2001, p134-135.)

Technologies to protect privacy

The demand in the market place has been producing technologies for the protection of privacy.  This itself raises some interesting issues and dilemmas concerning secrecy and security to be covered in the next chapter.

Institutional Policies

Even in the absence of legislation both private and public institutions an commercial enterprises might establish their own policies to recognize and respect privacy.  The discussion about and formulations of such policies would inform and guide public discourse and possible legislation.

Individual Actions

Individuals have been cautioned about their personal information by various agencies and entities and now even by friends and relatives.  There are a variety of measures that can be taken to protect information.  There  are also technologies to assist in this effort.  Many of the best pieces of advice involve not giving out the information in the first place and certainly not without careful consideration.

The Moral Issues: Applying Ethical Principles and the Dialectical Process

In approaching the questions, issues, problems and dilemmas posed by the situations presented by developments in computer technologies there is a need to analyze the situation and identify the key elements and values that may be involved and the ethical principles that can be brought to bear.  An argument needs to be developed in support of the position that is to be advanced as the preferred position on the moral question.  That position is then examined by others who hold different values or hold the same values in a different order and who would apply ethical principles in a different manner, rejecting one or another for reasons which should be given.  The process continues until there are enough people who think that one position is the best of the alternatives.  Given the nature of the original problem or question and the size of the populace who hold the one position of the majority there may be social policies or even legislation that would result.


The value held by many people is that of privacy.  Most people think that privacy had ought to be respected.  Following from this it is thought to be very important that people be permitted privacy.  The value placed on privacy  is  held highly in nearly all societies and particularly in democratic societies and is thought to be essential to the proper functioning of democracy as privacy is needed for the free communication of ideas to others and to support the formation of associations and groups participating in various ways in the process of governing.

The value of privacy may enter into conflict with the value of security.  In addition to the value of privacy people also think that their security and the security of their society are very important.  There are times when the two values are in conflict and constitutes a moral dilemma as to the resolution of the conflict and the ordering of the values.

It is one thing when individual privacy is set against the need for security for the nation and it is a not altogether a different sort of conflict when it is individual privacy set against the need for the security of information networks.  It is again another sort of situation when individual privacy is set against the need of employers to monitor their employees.

Ethical Principles

Ethical egoists might think that the use or exploitation of the privacy of others is morally correct, but there are no other ethical principles that could be used to support that general conclusion.  Arguments can be and have been advanced for limited violations or denials of privacy based on other principles. 

In applying utility to this conflict between privacy and the need for security arguments can be advanced that certain limitations on privacy and invasions of privacy may satisfy the interests of the greatest numbers of people where there is a clear threat to their security.  Under certain circumstances utility can be used to provide support for the conclusion that some limits on privacy are morally correct.  In each case the evidence would need to be provided to support the claim that the consequences of actions that limit or violate privacy do lead to a maximizing of utility

For Kant the Categorical Imperative would lead one to conclude that it is morally correct to respect privacy.  This is something that is universalizable.  It is also possible to formulate a maxim for conduct that would support some limited restrictions or exceptions to the right of privacy.  It might be seen as treating people as means to an end in examining their personal lives and denying or limiting their privacy to conduct their affairs, form associations and have personal relationships. 

For Rawls the Principle of Justice involves promoting a maximum of liberty while improving the lot of those least well off-minimizing the differences.  Preserving privacy would be promoting a maximization of liberty.   Permitting limited restriction on or invasion of privacy might be argued as  consonant with the Principle of Justice.  Not to permit some such limits could be argued as appreciably worsening the security of the society and particularly worsening the situation for those who might be victims of the actions of others being protected by an absolute right of privacy.

Other arguments can be advanced in support of resolutions of this dilemma and an argument can be developed using a multiplicity of ethical principles in support of particular conclusion as to what resolution is morally correct.


Reflections on Privacy by Lindsey Pehrson, CUNY SPS 2009 




            In his piece, Privacy and Technology, Gary T. Marx once declared that Internet privacy was in jeopardy. He stated,


“Such a society is transparent and porous. Information leakage is rampant. Indeed it is hemorrhaging, as traditional boundaries disappear. Actions, as well as feelings, thoughts, pasts, and even futures are made visible, often independent of the individual's will or knowledge. The line between the public and the private is weakened; we are under increased observation, ever more goes on a permanent record, and much of what we say, do and even feel may be known and recorded by others we do not know-- whether we will this or not, and even whether we know about it or not. Data in many different forms, from widely separated geographical areas, organizations, and time periods can easily be merged and analyzed. As the technology becomes ever more penetrating and intrusive, it becomes possible to gather information with laser-like specificity and with sponge-like absorbency. If we think about the information gathering net as being parallel to a fishing net, then the mesh of the net has become finer and the net wider.”


The ACM Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct, section 1.7 entitled, “Respect the privacy of others,” has declared a similar viewpoint on the risks on Internet confidentiality. They state,

“Computing and communication technology enables the collection and exchange of personal information on a scale unprecedented in the history of civilization. Thus there is increased potential for violating the privacy of individuals and groups. It is the responsibility of professionals to maintain the privacy and integrity of data describing individuals. This includes taking precautions to ensure the accuracy of data, as well as protecting it from unauthorized access or accidental disclosure to inappropriate individuals. Furthermore, procedures must be established to allow individuals to review their records and correct inaccuracies.

This imperative implies that only the necessary amount of personal information be collected in a system, that retention and disposal periods for that information be clearly defined and enforced, and that personal information gathered for a specific purpose not be used for other purposes without consent of the individual(s). These principles apply to electronic communications, including electronic mail, and prohibit procedures that capture or monitor electronic user data, including messages, without the permission of users or bona fide authorization related to system operation and maintenance.”


            Both of these quotes have been equally poignant in making the case for more privacy protection of citizens. In the first quote, Gary Marx makes an excellent point. With the widespread use of both technology and data harvesting techniques, it is extremely difficult for users to know when they are being monitored and what types of data are being collected. This is one of the most crucial components of online privacy: people are being watched and tracked and most of them have no idea it is happening. The data is often used to create a profile about them that is then sold for profit to advertising agencies. In other words, private data is being treated as a commodity, with no thought given to the wishes of those being targeted. The technology used to record and track individuals is continually changing and becoming more sophisticated. This means that increasingly more pervasive methods are being used to get at a wider spectrum of private data, opening up Internet users to identity theft and other not yet illegal violations of their privacy.

            The ACM Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct reiterates the idea that information is being collected on private individuals at an astounding rate. This raises numerous issues. First, data needs to be protected from unauthorized access. Second, it must be screened for inaccuracies. Third, the individuals who are being collected from have a right to review the data to see what types of details are being gathered about them, and ensure that everything is indeed accurate. Fourth, information must be kept current. That means that when it is no longer relevant or valid, or if the individual dies, it must be destroyed in a secure manner. Fifth, data collection must be authorized in clear and coherent language. Not imbedded in sixteen page long dialogues that drone on and are written in very elitist legal language.

            Because we live in a world where the technology is increasingly prevalent in our lives, we have to be very aware of its implications, including the details of what information is being stored about us and by whom. We live in a democracy where privacy may not be a legal guarantee, but we can do more to ensure that it is respected and upheld by corporations and governments alike. We can not allow personal data to be used as information commodities which are bought and sold or traded without our knowledge or permission. It is very dangerous to give away our rights to privacy. The result could lead to a panopticon society in which we are all watched and monitored without our knowledge, forced into acting a certain way out of fear of who might be listening. We cannot let this happen and the ACM Code of Ethics and the arguments of Gary Marx make clear provisions why our privacy is so exceedingly important and must be maintained.       Marx continues by saying,


“ These technologies fill deeply felt needs. We increasingly live in a world of strangers, rather than in homogenous rural communities in which people knew those with whom they had contact. The United States Supreme Court has said in its famous Katz decision that privacy was only protected when it could be reasonably expected. Technology changes and social expectations can’t remain static. With more powerful technologies we can reasonably expect less and less and hence privacy must become more restricted. Most so called ‘privacy invasions’ are not illegal in the United States.”


           There are those who argue that corporations and governments should not be allowed to monitor recklessly and those who argue that people should give up more of their privacy. This statement by Marx is merely an example of the weak argument that is usually used in favor of undermining privacy in response to information technology. It is true that the government has not done a great deal to uphold the privacy of Americans, even though privacy is an international value and one that is particularly given credit in a democracy. Americans appear to have given up a lot of  privacy voluntarily in return for the efficiency that computers grant us because, “ these technologies fill deeply felt needs.” Whereas we used to have more face time with those in our communities, we now do a lot more of our communicating through the Internet and other technologies, sending emails, texts, and notes from our Blackberries,or having video conferences with clients half a world away instead of traveling to see them.

            In the past decade, the United States has seen an increasing encroachment on privacy under the premise that security is the real core value, as James Moor believes, and that privacy is merely a secondary product to it. Technology is constantly changing making it easier to monitor and record the activities of citizens. The government has even gone so far as to say that privacy will only be upheld when it can be reasonably expected. In other words, the security of the whole is greater than the privacy of the individual parts. Absolute and total privacy is not clearly set as a legal right and therefore, it cannot be given the same merit that security can. Though Deborah Johnson feels that autonomy cannot exist without privacy, James Moor disputes this. He feels that husbands and wives live together many times without any level of privacy between them and yet they do not miss it. Therefore, it can not be deemed a core value of society. Alternatively, security is necessary for the protection and advancement of society. Without it, the community would crumble and we would be left vulnerable to anyone wishing to attack us. In short, privacy can not be held more valuable than the safety and security of a nation, particularly when so many citizens willingly give up pieces of their private lives in order to utilize certain services, or in exchange for financial rewards. If so many would seek to give up privacy so freely, it can be argued that it clearly is not held in the same high regard that freedom and other core values are.




            Privacy is a universal necessity. It is valued by most every culture, and has been traditionally upheld in places like that the United States because of the nation’s democratic status. With the advent and continual refinement of information technology, there has been an ever-encroaching presence looking in on Internet users, watching and collecting private data as though it were a commodity. There are two groups that are involved in this privacy debate: those that are collecting the information, and those who are targets of collection. The targets consist of all individuals whose names, Internet histories, medical records, legal records, emails, personal preferences, credit scores, purchase history, political opinions etc, are all being compiled and stored on numerous web servers, then compiled in to marketable packages which are sold to third party advertisers, corporations and the government. All too often, this group is completely unaware that data is being amassed about them. The ones doing the collecting usually rely on the harvested information as means to make a profit. They sell the packaged data to those that can use it for their own purposes: be it a target marketing campaign or a government query.

            There are several commonly held beliefs when it comes to privacy. Some feel that privacy is necessary in order to give individuals the comfort level to be themselves and form relationships, political or personal, with likeminded people. This affiliation allows us to take part in debate, dialogue and action on numerous topics. Without the privacy to form attachments, we would not have the ability to sustain true and lasting connections. Priscilla M. Reagan has pointed out that privacy has two forms: one for communication and the other for psychological needs. Because privacy is not set out clearly as a separate right provided directly in the constitution, there is a concern that the government or other bodies will encroach on the individual’s right to privacy in order to enforce matters of national security or public protection. (It is interesting to note that of the 100 bills from 2001 to 2004 pitched to Congress concerning tighter privacy legislations, only one has been passed.)  Reagan’s concern is that privacy should be treated as a social good that cannot be violated by either government or commercial enterprise.

            Deborah Johnson is another author who feels that human beings have a need to define themselves by the way they view themselves, and not as others see them. By removing privacy, we become exposed to others, both the good and bad. This may lead to a sense of self-editing in order to protect ourselves from judgment, and ultimately, a weakening sense of self-worth. Furthermore, Johnson claims that we need privacy in order to maintain autonomy. James Moor offers a contradictory point of view to Johnson. He uses the idea that a person that watches the actions of our lives without interfering allows us to maintain our autonomy without any privacy. He also argues that privacy is not a core value. Instead the core value that should be maintained and respected is security. Societies rely on security in order to prosper, without a sense of sanctuary, individuals are left open to harm from outsiders. Security can allow for “zones of privacy” but only if it does not conflict with the security of the whole.

            Personal information, in Johnson’s view, has the potential to be full of errors. Human beings, she argues, should be allowed to have access to files created about them, and to fix any data that is erroneous, even though in truth, there is no real way to fully erase something from the catacombs of cyberspace. According to Johnson, there are several steps that can be taken in order to create a world where privacy is treated responsibly. First, privacy would be identified as a social good instead of merely being an individual good. This gives it more weight in the public realm, and more reason to be protected. Second, government laws should be enacted at all levels to outline the proper ways of gathering and processing data, and clearly indicating who can access the stockpile of information. Third, society must give more thought to regulating both private and commercial organizations. This would remove the over-monitoring of workplace employees. Fourth, information should be treated as the connective tissue of society instead of as organs ready to be harvested and sold.   The ACM Code of Ethics has set very good guidelines for the collection of data that Johnson has also agreed with. It states that minimal data should be gathered, access to it should be closely monitored, it should be stored in very secure locations, it should be retained for only a set period of time, and when it is time to dispose of information which is no longer necessary or relevant, it should be done securely and properly. Adding to this, there should be technologies and institutional policies that are directly intended to protect citizen privacy and ensure it is treated with the utmost responsibility.

            Private information is sacred and must be sheltered from those individuals that would seek to use it for their own personal gain. By not defending personal data we are freely giving people access to private medical files and other facts and figures about us (some correct, some incorrect). This data could be disseminated without our knowledge, then used against us in job interviews, or worse, used by our present employers. For example, if a hiring agent found out the medical backgrounds of their two prospective employees they could make the decision based on which one was more likely to be in better health for longer, and cost them less in healthcare. Additionally, if an employer had access to religious backgrounds, they could choose the employee based on his belief in Buddha, or God as opposed to his qualifications for the position. This can lead to bias and end up being directly responsible for keeping you from an opportunity for employment or a raise. (From the hiring agent’s point of view, they have managed to make an educated decision and therefore should be allowed access to this data. However, if the company claims to hold high ethical standards, they are violating their own moral code of conduct).


            Information must be protected, and should not be used without the authorization of the target. Our private details are not a commodity and should not be treated like one. True, it makes money for advertisers because they have a clearer window into our souls, or at least they think they do when they buy a folio with all our preferences carefully detailed on it, but they are also using our right to freedom of expression against us. In the Constitution, the 4th amendment promises reasonable privacy. When national security is an issue, this is a more justifiable invasion than merely collecting, harvesting and selling data at random in order to make a profit or design a new product. Furthermore, individuals must be given the opportunity to say that they do not want data collected about them. Allowing the government, or anyone else, to peek in without our knowledge is both exceedingly dangerous and a direct violation of the concepts behind freedom and democracy.

            Based on commonly acknowledged ethical principles there are arguments that can be made for and against privacy protection. Ethical egoists would have no problem exploiting information and selling it to a third party if it meant they could gain something they wanted (like money). Unfortunately, none of the other ethical theories allow for such a free flow of information theft. In the Utilitarian point of view, the moral choice is the one that satisfies the interests of the largest number of people or that makes the largest number of people happy. By creating limits to privacy intrusion, we are making a large number of people happy. However, if it is a threat to their security, the largest number of people may indeed choose to value security over privacy. The right choice is dependant on circumstance. For Kant, the Categorical Imperative says that honoring privacy is the morally acceptable choice because it is an international value and can be universalized by rational adults. By selling people’s information without their knowledge, you are treating them as a means to an end, therefore directly violating one of Kant’s laws. In Rawls’ Theory of Justice, promoting maximum liberty would mean acting to protect privacy. In some cases, however, placing restrictions on this privacy would also be in line with the Principle of Justice. By not creating limits and allowing people to do whatever they want, unsuspected by the rest of the world, you are creating the potential for serious threats to security of society. This could result in a worsening situation for all involved that could be potential victims of those people who have been granted the right to privacy with no limitations and thus placing them in a position with an increase in the disadvantages to them..

            Giving all these principles and arguments serious consideration, the course of action consistent with the values held by most people in a liberal society is to protect data and treat it as a valued social good. There is a conflict between privacy and the first amendment that protects the public’s right to know. And, that there is a big misconception that privacy should only matter if you have something to hide. In keeping with these ideas, it would seem that wanting to keep your bank account pin number safe means that you have something illegal to hide…right? It doesn’t make much sense when we put it that way. There are several files and records that are so personal that they aren’t meant to be shared with anyone but our doctors or our lawyers.

            The Internet is a Third Wave technology that has rapidly expanded the capabilities of both the government and individuals in keeping tabs on what users are doing. All of our electronic tools store information about us and betray without us ever realizing it. Credit card companies keep records of purchases, as do grocery store reward programs, and websites that we use to buy things online. By allowing third parties to collect information about us here and there, then stockpile it to create more complete profiles, we are giving strangers the ability to identify the things we like, then tell others about it (whether the information is accurate or not) without us every finding out. The Internet has managed to create a world of efficiency that we have come to rely on in our daily lives. Many individuals feel that giving up a little privacy here and there for the purpose of establishing email addresses or free access to the Internet is worth the sacrifice. Then again, many of these same people have no real concept of the expansive amounts of facts and figures being collected about them.

            We need to enact some changes to protect ourselves. First, we need to have truth in privacy policies, and businesses online or otherwise must be truthful and transparent in their intentions. We should have the right to say no and have the same type of service offered to us by another vendor that is not insistent on our personal details as part of the package. Second, information should not be treated as a marketable commodity that can be bought and sold to whoever has the money. We need to agree on that. This makes it much easier to establish policies and guidelines for the collection and use of data. Third, we must insist that we have access to the folios which have been created about us so that we can correct the errors, and ensure that nothing too intrusive or superfluous has been snuck in with the other information. Fourth, we need to realize that we are not asking for unlimited privacy. This type of ridiculous concept is what child molesters and money launderers can use in order to stay undetected for years.

            James Moor believes that security should be valued over privacy, and that there should be designated areas for privacy. Security is a competing value with privacy, but in a world of infinite possibilities, we are not limited to having to choose one option over the other. There must be a way to create real privacy while still allowing for security that would keep us well protected. Security keeps a society running, but so does privacy. If everyone were to be monitored constantly and knew about it, we would all begin to live in a state of self-censorship and paranoia, never really certain of who is listening. This type of detachment from who we really are can lead to a community in which no real relationships are formed, where everyone is suspect of everyone else. There is no security in a society like this because there is no real trust. Privacy and confidentiality are key components in establishing intimacy between groups. Take those away and in time you create an uncontrolable free for all. We need security but we also need basic forms of privacy that are respected and shared among citizens. That is the only way keep ourselves from falling into the trap like the futuristic electronic pizza delivery demonstration that the ACLU eerily depicts on their website.

            In conclusion, though there are numerous conflicting opinions about the amount of privacy that we should have, we live in a democracy and privacy is needed to maintain the relationships of citizens. As technology expands and becomes increasingly high tech, we need a means for protecting our data and keeping it from falling into the hands of those that would seek to profit from it with no regard for human life or feeling. This means creating legal and social constraints about the types of data that can be collected, the people that can see it, the method in which it is stored, and the ultimate removal of it from the system when it is no longer relevant. We need to privacy from being a social commodity to being a valued social good that is given respect by the government and commercial vendors alike. If we don’t, we are going to give away the last shreds of who we are to complete strangers, and by the time we realize what we have done there will no means left to fight against the permanent intrusion into our lives.


Suggested Readings:
Discussion on Openness - Foresight Institute

Information Technology and Public Sector Corruption. Corruption is a major problem for many parts of the public sector. One dominant vision of corruption restraint - the panoptic vision - sees information technology (IT) as a key enabler of management control.

An Examination of Surveillance Technology and the Implications for Privacy and Related Issues. This paper takes a critical look at the often murky intersection of law, technology and information.

The role of information systems personnel in the provision for privacy and data protection in organisations and within information systems  by Richard Howley, Simon Rogerson, N Ben Fairweather, Lawrence Pratchett  Abstract - Full Paper  The ETHICOMP Journal Vol. 1 No. 1.

Organizations for the Protection Of Privacy

Privacy International (PI) is a human rights group formed in 1990 as a watchdog on surveillance and privacy invasions by governments and corporations

F.A.C.T.Net Inc. (a non-profit Internet digest, news service, library, dialogue center, and archive dedicated to the promotion and defense of international free thought, free speech, and privacy rights)

Privacy Journal

News on privacy Wired - Privacy Matters

The Electronic Privacy Information Center

The Center for Democracy and Technology

The Information Commissioner of the United Kingdom

The Office of the Federal Privacy Commissioner, Australia

Privacy International

Privacy Foundation

Federal Communications Commision FCC

Federal Trade Commission FTC

Electronic Frontier Foundation 

Electronic Frontier Foundation 's Blue Ribbon Campaign

Center for Democracy and Technology CDT



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Web Surfer's Caveat: These are class notes, intended to comment on readings and amplify class discussion. They should be read as such. They are not intended for publication or general distribution.                @copyright 2006 Philip A. Pecorino                       

Last updated 8-2006                                                              Return to Table of Contents